'Yaoi Fangirls' by inukagome134
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, LGBTQ, Manga, Pop Culture

Does ‘Boys Love/Yaoi’ Manga Have A Gender And Sexuality Problem?

‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?

[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]

In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.

For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).

As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.

Haruka from Free! getting out a pool

I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.

At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.

The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.

Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata

A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.

There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.

If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.

Regular couple, yaoi couple, yuri couple. I see no difference, love is love.

I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.

In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.

BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:

“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”

Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.

Ten Count covers

Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.

Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.

So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:

Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.

Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:

Pages from 'Ten Count'

Ouch.

Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.

Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care. Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.

Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug) is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:

Cover art from 'Raising a Bat'

Cover art for Raising a Bat by “Jade”.

Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.

Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.

Page from 'Raising a Bat'

Uh-oh…

The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.

Min Gyeom's descent into depression is captured beautifully in his expressions.

“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.

BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.


Header image by inukagome134.
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30 Day Anime Challenge Cosmic Anvil
Anime, Comics, Manga, Pop Culture

30 Day Anime Challenge: Day 0 (Introduction)

To promote our Kickstarter campaign to get the first volume of our comic book series printed, me and the creative team at Cosmic Anvil will be taking part in the 30 Day Anime Challenge over at the Cosmic Anvil Blog. Scroll down for the Day 0 Introduction post, and please also be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign too – every pledge (no matter how small) will help us massively!

The Cosmic Anvil Blog

Over the next month starting from today, the Cosmic Anvil team are going to be undertaking their greatest challenge yet: a 30 Day Anime Challenge running alongside our Kickstarter campaign, which is aims to raise enough money to get the very first collected volume of Age of Revolution printed. This is a little different to our normal review posts, but don’t worry – we will also try to keep our regular content such as ‘N00b Reviews‘ going as well.

Here’s the list of challenge topics that we – Jess, Huw, and Hannah – will be posting about over the next 30 days:

Day 1: Very First Anime You Watched
Day 2: Favourite Anime You’ve Watched So Far
Day 3: Favourite Male Anime Character Ever 
Day 4: Favourite Female Anime Character Ever 
Day 5: Anime You’re Ashamed You Enjoyed 
Day 6: Anime You Want to See But Haven’t…

View original post 366 more words

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sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell
Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture

“You’d Better Become Aware That You’re Just a Woman”: Your New Favourite Feminist Manga.

Originally posted on the Cosmic Anvil Recommends blog. 


The Sacred Blacksmith or Seiken no Burakkusumisu is a fantastical story about knights, demons, medieval melodrama, magical swords, and reincarnation. At its core, however, it is essentially a story about a young woman asserting herself in a man’s world. In light of this it might be surprising to learn that the manga’s key demographic in Japan is the ‘Seinen’ audience – young to middle-aged men. Seinen stories are primarily characterised by soft-core sexual content and a female protagonist, but rather than rely solely on the usual fan service to satisfy male readers (panty shots, accidental nudity, nosebleeds, etc.) Sacred Blacksmith uses its genre trappings to instead highlight the causes and consequences of sexual violence with chilling realism, and handles it better than most live-action representations I’ve seen.

The Sacred Blacksmith began life as light novel series by Isao Miura with illustrations by Luna. The manga adaptation by Kotaro Yamada has been serialised in Monthly Comic Book Alive since 2009, and the (criminally short) 12-episode anime from Manglobe also aired in 2009. It’s hero is Cecily Campbell, a young woman who dreams of becoming a great knight like her Father. The problem is… Cecily doesn’t have a clue how to be a knight. In fact, she’s pretty useless at it. That is, until she teams up with Aria – a formidable spiritual sword who can take the form of a human – and Luke Ainsworth, a grumpy and isolated master Blacksmith who is attempting to forge a sword powerful enough to take out the evil presence that plagues the medieval world they live in. Aria quickly becomes Cecily’s ally and best friend, but Luke takes a lot more convincing. This is not because Luke has any prejudice against women (evidenced by his female assistant, Lisa) but simply because he finds Cecily’s incompetence really annoying.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily getting on Luke’s last nerve.

Cecily, however, is unrelentingly ambitious, and slowly manages to become better and better at wielding Aria, and far more confident in battle. Luke finds that as their paths continuously cross, and Lisa and Aria conspire to push the two together, he begins to see past his initial impression of Cecily as a bumbling idiot and instead as a valuable ally and equal. These feelings predictably intensify into more romantic ones, but as Luke seems unsure if Cecily returns these feelings, he remains at a respectful distance from her… for now, anyway.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Shall we dance..?

Cecily and Luke’s tentative and courteous relationship throughout the story is put into stark contrast with Cecily’s encounters with the villain of the story – Siegfried. Siegfried is your standard ‘insert-villain-here’ kind of villain: power-hungry, ruthless, and very, very creepy. This creepiness doesn’t take long to become predatory, culminating in one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever come across in my years of reading comics and manga.

It comes after Cecily manages to claim a significant victory over Siegfried, and he – humiliated – physically and sexually assaults her when she is alone and off-guard. His intention is to not only humiliate her in the way she did him, but to demonstrate both his power over her as an enemy and, more importantly, as a man over a woman. He doesn’t even need to actually carry out the ‘act’ fully because the implication is enough, and the implication is that it would certainly not be a sexual act rooted in lust, but a violent one rooted in sadism. The ordeal is quite honestly extremely difficult to read – as you would expect it to be – but perhaps equally heart breaking is seeing the effect it has on Cecily, who is utterly psychologically destroyed by it.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily in turmoil after the assault.

This internal collapse is physically represented – and powerfully visualised – by Cecily shutting herself away in bed at home, curled up under the covers with the curtains drawn, closed off to all of her friends and family. Aria tries to console her, but gets nowhere. Cecily seems to suffer in silence for many painful weeks. It is unclear if Siegfried’s actions are unique to his cruel character, or symptomatic of a larger culture of sexual violence in that world, but either way, the effect on Cecily would be the same. In a manga that had been fairly sweet natured up until this point, the gritty brutality of this arc was rendered all the more shocking to me, but I was also impressed at the balance of realism, brutality, and delicacy that Yomada conveyed through art and text, and all the more endeared to Cecily. I was reminded of a scene in the film G.I Jane (1997) which told the story of Jordan O’Neil – the first woman to go through a male-exclusive Navy Seal training programme, the toughest in the world. In the scene, the harsh reality of being prisoners of war is demonstrated to the new recruits, and to their horror, Master Chief Urgayle graphically simulates raping O’Neil to coldly remind them that sexual abuse is used as torture in war. Broadly speaking, he is also reminding O’Neil that she really is a woman in a man’s world, and could be taken advantage of in ways that her male peers probably wouldn’t. The only difference between G.I Jane and Sacred Blacksmith is that O’Neil’s abuse was simulated, but Cecily’s was all too real.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

G.I Jane – the cold reality for women on the battlefield?

My expectation in Sacred Blacksmith was that Cecily would eventually confide in Luke leaving him to enact revenge on Siegfried as the resident valiant ‘Prince Charming’, but I was glad when this expectation turned out to be completely wrong. Instead – as you would hope from a self-motivated woman of action – Cecily manages to not only come to terms with the ordeal, but faces down Siegfried again with Aria in hand. Luke does aid her in doing this and there is an implication that he has some idea of what may have happened, but I don’t think this detracts from the significance of Cecily standing up to her attacker and finding strength as a survivor rather than continue to feel defeated as a victim. In fact, when Luke steps in to confront Siegfried alongside Cecily, he does so not as Cecily’s protector or superior, but as her friend and ally outraged on her behalf.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Luke has had enough of this shit.

The ‘woman in a man’s world’ trope maybe a well worn one, as is the ‘clumsy girl who learns strength through fighting’ one. And although Sacred Blacksmith doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is ultimately Cecily Campbell’s inner strength that pulls her through one of the toughest ordeals a woman can face, and handled with the appropriate mix of shock, brutality, and sensitivity through the beautifully drawn art. And don’t forget – this is all in a story aimed at young men.


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

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black butler kuroshitsuji anime manga gender analysis
Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture

The Dark Gender Politics of ‘Black Butler’ Are The Secret To Its Success

Originally published on the Cosmic Anvil Recommends blog.

Written and drawn by Yana Toboso, Black Butler, or Kuroshitsuji, is a Victorian supernatural fairy story like no other. Dark, weird, and classically gothic, this manga is fantastically written, stunningly drawn, and hugely loved both in and outside of Japan. It’s popularity is so strong in fact that its franchise has stretched beyond the manga series and anime adaptations, but also into a video game, a live-action film, and even two musical productions (only in Japan, unfortunately).

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Poster for the first Black Butler live action cinematic adaptation

Despite volumes of the manga selling millions of copies, Black Butler is surprisingly not ranked highly in lists of the most popular manga on sale at the moment, but what sets it apart from most of its competition is the level of adoration and demand for cross-platform adaptations. The fans aren’t just satisfied with reading the story – they want the story to be as real and interactive as possible.

This only leaves one question: What is it about this manga that’s so special?

For starters – and I know this word is overused – it’s truly unique. I love manga, but like any established medium, so much of it is stuffed with generic tropes, fan service gimmicks, and ‘this-seems-very-familiar’ premises. The genres and sub-genres – although endlessly abundant – are also incredibly rigid, and most authors seem to prefer to play it safe within these genres, telling the kinds of high-school romance or action-adventure stories that the audience is used to reading and therefore easy to sell. However, it serves to note that the biggest sellers at the moment – One Piece, Attack on Titan, Naruto, Magi and Kuroko’s Basket – are actually very distinctive, showing that if an original idea catches people’s imaginations, it can really take off.

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Magi Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Kuroko’s Basketball Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Naruto Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

Attack on Titan Manga Cover

cosmic anvil black butler manga anime

One Piece Manga Cover

Black Butler is a manga that has certainly achieved this. Set in Victorian England, the story revolves around 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive; orphaned on his tenth birthday when his parents were killed in a mysterious fire. Upon their death, Ciel vowed revenge, and inadvertently summoned a demon – Sebastian Michaelis – whom he made a deal with: To help him enact his revenge in exchange for his soul. Until that day arrives, Sebastian poses as Ciel’s butler and aids him in fulfilling his family’s duties as Queen Victoria’s ‘Watchdog,’ solving crimes in London’s gritty underworld while facing other paranormal beings along the way. Even in the worn-out supernatural genre, it’s a pretty interesting set-up.

The characters, however, are the real heart of the series. Ciel Phantomhive is far from your typical 13-year-old boy. Despite running his family’s toy company, he has little time or interest in childish pursuits – preferring to spend his time reading the newspaper, intimidating businessmen, indulging in Victorian High-Tea, and picking over crime scenes with his tailor-made cane and permanent frown of disdain.

black butler anime manga cosmic anvil recommends

Ciel Phantomhive

Sebastian Michaelis is quite simply what he says he is: “One Hell of butler.” He can do everything from cooking a three-course dinner from scratch in under an hour; to taking out armed mobsters armed only silverware. His demonic powers essentially give him enhanced strength, speed and invulnerability, but his slim physique and feline elegance are more reminiscent of Catwoman than Superman. Despite taking on a male guise, there are subtle hints throughout the story that Sebastian is in fact gender-neutral, which, coupled with his graceful but deadly demeanour, makes him a mysterious and unpredictable presence.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler manga anime

Sebastian Michaelis

Sebastian also becomes the unwitting object of affection for rogue Grim Reaper (and fan favourite) Grell Sutcliffe. Grell’s sexuality is never openly discussed, but the batting of his eye lashes, the shimmy in his walk, and a certain Titanic re-enactment scene (pictured below) – not to mention his constant fawning over Sebastian’s assumed-male body – make it pretty clear what kind of stereotype he is supposed to be (…or perhaps not if you take a look at this interesting forum debate between fans). Whilst Grell is genuinely endearing, this comedic but negative stereotyping of gay men and women as camp, sexually devious, and always chasing after people they can’t get is unfortunately common in manga/anime of this genre. Sebastian’s indefinable character draws strength from exactly the opposite.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler anime manga

Every night in my dreams, I see you… I feel you…

The dynamic between Ciel and Sebastian is often mistaken for something perversely sexual and has inspired a wealth of, uh, not so tasteful fan fiction and art, but though I agree it is a perverse relationship, it’s certainly not a romantic one. Despite Toboso’s seductively penned expressions and glove removal sequences, Sebastian actually has no discernable sexuality. It is more of an unhealthy co-dependency to satiate unhealthy desires that he and Ciel share. For Ciel, it is the desire for revenge, and for Sebastian, it is the desire to consume Ciel’s soul. Sebastian – like the witch in the Hansel and Gretel legend – is ‘fattening’ Ciel’s soul up as he helps Ciel get closer and closer to his ultimate goal. In that role, Sebastian appears caring, nurturing, and protective, and sometimes it seems that even Ciel mistakes this for the guidance and companionship he has been missing in the wake of his parent’s demise, forgetting that behind beneath his loyal butler’s skin beats the dark heart of a predator.

cosmic anvil recommends black butler anime mange

“One Hell of a Butler.”

Although there is something negative to be found in the twinning of androgyny with the monstrous, I think that what Toboso ultimately proves by playing on that connection in Black Butler is that we are perhaps more uncomfortable with androgyny then demonism, and this is the story’s unique appeal. The glimpses of Sebastian in his feminised demon form are more tantalising than his acts of inhuman strength and violence. Sebastian’s gender is a riddle that we – as readers in a gendered society – long to solve.


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in comic book and children’s book illustration. Check out her website here if you’ve got a project you want to bring to life with bespoke artwork 🙂

And don’t forget to check out the official Cosmic Anvil website for original creator made comics!

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Disability Visibility in Comics & Manga

 

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Roughly a year ago now I started reading a manga called Gangsta online and became pretty much hooked from the first few pages. I lapped up every chapter that was available, and every subsequent chapter that was painfully slowly uploaded by the scanlators (I would explain what a ‘scanlator’ is, but the clue really is in the title.) A year later (the present) the manga has FINALLY had its first volume released in English and I didn’t hesitate to order it, despite having already read the first 20 or so chapters, and I can’t wait to re-read it again in print.

What is it about this manga that grabbed me so much? Honestly, I can’t put my finger on one single thing. Gangsta has just got that magic formula of great characters, plot, artwork, and writing that sing off of the page for me. Overall it tries very hard to keep away from the usual trappings of its genre, but there is one element that I find particularly unique: it has the first deaf character I’ve ever encountered in manga.

Disability, whilst still hugely underrepresented, is by way no way unheard of in comics and manga. The most obvious example is Daredevil – the blind lawyer by day and the blind superhero by night. His is the classic tale of turning what most would view as a disadvantage into an advantage – his lack of sight is compensated (or overcompensated, perhaps) by superhuman hearing. And he can also kick the shit out of you. Another is of course Oracle. Oracle, aka the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordan, was dealt horrific spinal injuries by the Joker and rendered unable to walk ever again. Again, rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up entirely on superhero life, she became Batman’s technological eyes and ears as Oracle.

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There is also the alternate tale of continually struggling with disability. Cloak – of the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger – suffers from a terrible stutter which, as a teenager, prevents him from being able to warn his friend of the oncoming car that hits and kills him. His ability to literally engulf himself in darkness represents his own longing to disappear in silence from the world.

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Other examples are more allegorical. Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into a raging green giant when angry can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mental health condition. Maybe he is just a guy who loses control over his emotions so extremely that he also loses control of reality. The Hulk could all be in his own head, and we see what he sees because the story is told from his point of view. I doubt I’m the first person to make this point either. The X-Men, who have been born with their abilities rather than gained them, are classified as Mutants, which automatically has an inherent linguistic negativity.Image

They are the embodiment of every feared and misunderstood ‘abnormal’ or minority group in our society, and similarly vary between defensive separatism and active outreach. Every single mutant has a unique mutation in the same way that every disabled person has a unique disability. There may be some general similarities or common characteristics, but ultimately the severity and the effects of that mutation/disability depend on the individual.

Returning to manga, I have to say I can think of far less examples. Very often, if a character is in a wheelchair – which is the most common visible example I’ve seen – they are very much defined by that disability to the detriment of their characters. Nanalie in Code Geass, who is both blind and in a wheelchair, is presented as being so emotionally and childishly weak as direct result of her disability that she borders on being pathetic. She cannot go anywhere without being nursed by someone. It infuriates me so much I wish she wasn’t in the show at all. Sometimes just being representative isn’t enough when that representation is so profoundly negative.

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Implied mental health problems are a bit more common in manga. Light in Death Note is quite clearly a high functioning sociopath and – by the end of the story – develops megalomania to boot. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is an undiagnosed manic-depressive who happens to also be trapped in the most bleak and apocalyptic world imaginable. His frequent declarations of ‘I might as well be dead’ and ‘I really don’t care about anything’ seem to enhance the intense melancholia and crushing sense of hopelessness that hangs permanently over the story of Evangelion. Luckily his initial reluctance is slowly purged by a latent heroism that develops partly thanks to his confused yet affectionate feelings towards one of his co-pilots, Rei. Shinji is a protagonist who discovers the will to live as the world around him conversely ebbs closer to destruction. Never mind, Shinji.

So… in light off all of this waffling contextual analysis, how and what does Gangsta do differently to represent disability? In the first few pages in which the two central characters – Nic and Worick – are introduced, there is nothing to suggest Nic’s hearing impairment. And why would there be? The only way you would know if someone was deaf would be if there was a physical indication – you might see that they have a hearing aid, for instance. Nic’s physical presence is that of the strong, silent, and vaguely disinterested type. The revelation of his disability is not revelatory in the slightest. So much so that I actually missed it on the first reading – which I think is a good thing. Rather than being the be all and end all of his character, it is simply presented as a different way for him to communicate. This is partly due to the constraints of the medium itself. If it were moving images, or perhaps even a book, his deafness might have been instantly apparent in the scene in question. As still images it is a little harder to grasp.

This is how it goes: Nic taps the hood of the car he is sat on to get the attention of the other characters around him who are all having a verbal conversation. His hand gesture is drawn to suggest movement. His speech bubbles are black with white text – the inverse of everyone else’s speech bubbles. As this is the first time I have ever seen a deaf character in a comic/manga, I don’t think there is a standard method of presenting one – I had no reference point to think ‘ah yes, he’s signing’ in the cartoonish way that you often see a blind character drawn with sunglasses and a stick and get that they are blind, for example. I think I just assumed his speech bubbles were different to make him seem cooler or something.

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It is not until much later on that his disability is specifically made reference to and that was when I clocked it and the ‘Wha-?’ moment happened. In the scene, Nic becomes angry, and his speech bubbles suddenly became white with black text. But the shape of the bubbles is jagged and the text is all in capitals and differently sized.

 “Wait! Nicolas, did you just speak?” One of the male characters asks him in surprise. “Say something again!”

Nic taps his chest.

“Sorry I…don’t know sign language.” The man replies.

“He says he’s too tired to do it again.” Worick interprets, and he exits the scene with Nic.

Given my ignorance in realising that Nic had been signing the whole time, I think it was good that the creator – Kohske – added this little bit in for other thick people like me, but I was also impressed that she managed to avoid being too expositional. Nic chooses to verbally speak only to vent his frustration directly to the characters that are non-sign language fluent, but refuses to indulge them again, completely fitting with his ‘fuck you’ character (which I am completely in love with, btw.) Without going into too much detail, Nic does have superhuman abilities in strength and speed, but unlike your average Daredevil or Hulk or X-Man, these have nothing to do with his disability. He is a superhuman assassin who just happens to also be deaf. It does not define his character, but merely adds another ‘FYI’ layer to it.

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In fact, the only time in the story so far when his deafness is central to his characterisation is possibly my favourite bit of the manga so far. The word ‘bromance’ gets thrown around a lot lately, and very often is used to comic effect with not-very-subtle-and-borderline-offensive-gay-jokes scattered around, because how else can heterosexual men express love for each other without it being (tee hee) a bit gay? Well, let me introduce you to Nic and Worick: a truly legit bromance. I don’t want to give too much away because I genuinely want people to go out and buy this manga, so all I’ll say for context is that Nic and Worick share a pretty traumatising childhood together. At first, Nic is totally alone – silent and illiterate (which I ironically just misspelt about 5 times…). He has absolutely no way of communicating with people other than vaguely miming, and none of the adults around him are remotely interested in making an effort to understand or reach out to him. He is emotionally blank. It is Worick – an equally isolated child of similar age – who teaches him to not only read and write but to sign (he discovers the language in a book). It becomes not only Nic’s communicative liberation, but also their own private language, and this special world of two stays with them into adulthood and remains beautifully impenetrable. Worick is also Nic’s connection to the outside verbal world, but there isn’t any point that you get the sense that Nic is dependant on him. He stalks rooftops alone, disappears around corners, and sneaks down alleyways while Worick struts his stuff down main roads and runs his prostitution racket – (yep, Worick is a gigolo) on the side of their delivery business.

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Before writing this I did a quick Google search on the author and manga but failed to find much on either of them unfortunately. Specifically, I wanted to know why she had decided to make Nic deaf, but then I realised that just by asking this question I was being discriminatory. Why shouldn’t Nic be deaf? It would be the same as asking why a character was a woman, why a character was gay, or why a character was non-white. The answer is they just are. There could be a reason why Nic was an assassin. There could be a reason why he decided to only wear black. There could be a reason why he possessed superhuman abilities – and all of these are answered in Gangsta (except the black clothing thing, I think its just to make him look like real dude tbh.) There doesn’t have to be a reason why he is deaf unless it is a crucial factor in understanding his character – which it isn’t. The proof of this is that I read the first few chapters not realising he had an impairment and still understood his character; still empathised with him; and still wanted to read more. When I became aware of the impairment, my feelings towards him did not change. If anything, I warmed to him even more. This is a real testament to the story-telling abilities of the author, Kohske, and if Gangsta gets popular enough, will hopefully encourage the creation of other more positive and well-balanced disabled characters in this medium.

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You can buy Gangsta Volume 1 now from Amazon and Forbidden Planet. And you really should.

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